The Many Hats of a Caterer
Caterers wear many hats, and only one of them resembles the familiar white chef's hat. There are many responsibilities to be fulfilled, including marketing and sales, planning, and financial management.
At the beginning you'll have the lofty title of executive chef, but you may also be sous chef, line cook, prep cook, and dishwasher, too!You'll need to be knowledgeable about all aspects of food safety and handling, as well as kitchen safety and accident prevention. You'll also have to establish a control system to minimize waste, spoilage, and theft.
You'll be purchasing ingredients, determining food costings, and writing the menus. You'll have to master each station of the kitchen to develop and test recipes, to minimize food costs, and to ensure your recipes work consistently well for large numbers of servings.
Kitchen safety encompasses many practices. You already know the obvious (keep cleaning chemicals away from food), but there may be some things you haven't considered. If you are lucky enough to have some say in the design of the kitchen, make sure the floors are water resistant and made of nonslip materials.
To begin a project such as organizing a party for 85 people, you'll have to consult with the client, plan the menus, order supplies from vendors, plan out the preparation and event timelines, hire extra help if necessary, arrange for transportation and/or delivery, handle the contract and monies, and cook and prepare the food. In addition you'll have to arrange for rentals and any décor, entertainment, or audiovisual needs that you're hiring subcontractors for.
Much of catering is figuring out how all the components are going to come together as one at precisely the right time. Everything for a catered event has to be planned down to the finest detail. Caterers who run events create timelines not by the day but by the hour, so they know what has to happen when. This may sound like overkill, but it's not.
If you've ever had a wedding or thrown a party, you know how quickly time can go by. Someone has to plan when the toasts are going to be made and let the speakers know when to begin. Someone has to tell the kitchen when the main course is to be served to 400 guests and has to warn the kitchen if there's a delay. If no one orchestrates the event, the day will turn into chaos.
Customer Service Representative
Caterers have to be cheerleaders and problem solvers every day. Not only do you have to understand your client's needs to develop a menu and proposal he likes, but you have to work with him, often over a period of months, accommodating questions, changes, and special requests.
The real customer service savvy comes the day of the event, when you're tired from hours of preparations and you have to be all smiles and full of energy. Catering demands that you be able to defuse a situation without ever appearing flustered, and you exhibit patience as you strive to please your client's every whim all the time.
Last minute problems always arise, and you have to stay flexible to deal with them. Rain delays many of the guests, so the serving timetable gets pushed back and your filets are in danger of drying out. Six people who said they weren't coming to the party suddenly appear at the front door, yelling “surprise,” and they need to be fed. Someone else remembers he's allergic to shellfish and needs an alternative to the bouillabaisse you're serving. Your client's schnauzer has somehow managed to knock your cookie platter off the counter and onto the floor. You have to quickly invent a dessert alternative.
Professional Server and Cleaner
Until you can afford, find, and train an excellent staff, you're the chief bottle washer and cook. You'll have to set up the party, making sure you've brought everything from the vegetable side dishes to the toothpicks. You must also help serve the guests.
Every good caterer must include basic repair tools and cleaning supplies in her equipment lists. Everyone on your team should know where duct tape, clean rags, all-purpose cleaner, fresh batteries, and other handy items are stowed.
For a large party, you'll need to hire serving help to provide drink refills, restock rolls, and clear away used plates, cutlery, and glasses. You'll have to oversee your staff, making sure they are servicing the guests and attending to their needs. After the party, you'll have to clean up the site, gather the trash, and repack your supplies so that you find everything for the next job.
Every caterer has to assertively market herself. With such a highly competitive industry, you can't expect the phone to start ringing as soon as you announce you're a caterer. You have to spread the word about your services and your new business as creatively and as inexpensively as possible. You'll have to learn to be an astute guerrilla marketer in order to grow your client list.
You have to venture out into the market to sell yourself and your services, so there's no room for shyness. You'll pick whom you want to sell to, determine what to charge them, and negotiate with clients. You don't get to practice your kitchen magic if you don't sell your services. Like it or not, selling becomes more important than cooking, especially at the beginning.